Ecuador: A Life-Changing Experience

 by Lianna Johnstone

Staff Writer/Photographer

I don’t cry as I wave goodbye to my mom passing through security at the Seattle/Tacoma Airport.  I feel my nerves tingle with anticipation as I walk to my gate and begin my journey.  I think, “This will be the longest time spent out of the country,” as my head swirls with worry.  Will I like my host family?  Will I be able to safely run, and explore Quito?  Will I like the people in my group?  I board the plane and immediately fall asleep. 

***

Upon arrival in the Atlanta Airport, I was greeted by my friend Sophie who was also on the trip.  Together, we flew into Quito.  When we landed at the Mariscal Sucre International Airport, we were cheerfully greeted by our program director, Sebastián Granada.  He made sure we made it onto a comfy bus that would take us to the old airport where his wife met us and took us to a homey hotel where we spent the next two nights adjusting to life in Quito. 

During those two days, Sebastian and the other program coordinator Viviana outlined the program itinerary for us.  On our first day, our group bonded over climbing up the steep metal ladder to the observation steeple of the Basilica church that over looked the breathtaking historic center of Quito.  Sebastián and Viviana both ensured we were well fed and feeling good about the transition to living at 9350 feet above sea-level.

High up in the Basilica.
High up in the Basilica.

After our adjustment period of being with just Sebastián and Vivianna, we met our families.  We all were so nervous sitting in the hotel room while each family came in to get us.  My host mom and dad came to pick me up and on the way home I learned that I had two brothers that lived at home, and a sister who lived close by.  Throughout the rest of the week, I met the rest of my family.  They were all so friendly and welcoming. 

My host family.
My host family.

My family brought me to tour the Ecuadorian President’s house, and we all went out to dinner.  Our families also made sure we knew how to call the safe taxis as well as how to ride the buses that were often so full of people that passengers had to hang out the doors.  Our families worked with us to ensure our visas were in order and that we knew how to get to the Católica,the university where we had Spanish class, and to the Pitzer office, where the main program was.

Sebastian and Viviana were extremely helpful during our orientation to the Católica.  I had tested into a level where I had the option to take two quarters of intensive Spanish or take one quarter of intensive Spanish, and a semester-long Sociology course.  I chose the latter.  The Spanish class I took at the Católica was great because I learned grammar and Ecuadorian culture with other exchange students who were at my level.  The professor was engaging and we debated controversial news topics in Ecuador such as the day-after pill, and the President’s plan to drill for petroleum in protected land.  We also watched movies and went on field trips to learn more about Ecuador, as well as to improve our Spanish.  My Sociology class was different because it was with Ecuadorian students my age.  It was great to learn about dependency theory and world systems theory from a non-western point of view.    

The Pitzer-run class was a great window into Ecuadorian culture and history.  Through guest speakers and casual lectures, Sebastian taught us about the government structure, the history behind the current citizens revolution in Ecuador, and different hot-button events such as the exploitation of National Park Yasuní.  This once-a-week class also provided us with a chance to check in about our experience and how we felt we were doing.  Sebastián made sure to check in with us individually throughout our stay in Quito.  Viviana also made sure to celebrate every person’s birthday if it happened during our stay in Quito with a beautiful cake.

Taken at the Rural Experience.
Taken at the Rural Experience.

We went on small field trips to a museum and to the thermal hot springs.  With the Pitzer class, we also spent four days in the amazon jungle where we saw crocodiles and monkeys and learned about alternative indigenous medicine.  We also did a four-day homestay with an indigenous rural community in the north of Ecuador.  In this experience, I learned how to make bread and tortillas with my family, as well as how to feed their animals.

The Amazon.
The Amazon.

Another component of the Pitzer in Ecuador Program is the Direct Independent Study (DISP.)  It is a type of qualitative research study conducted through interviews and observations on any aspect of culture, society, and/or politics of Ecuador.  I chose to do mine on the perceptions of middle-class Quiteñens of the government of President Rafael Correa.  My DISP was the first paper over  ten pages that I had written completely in Spanish, where most of my sources were interviews from the local community.  I found it interesting to see how different people’s opinions were about Correa’s government.  I found my Mom and Dad were Correistas (or pro-Rafael Correa and his policies) while many of the students at the Católica were opposed to Correa’s presidency and government.  I felt this paper was a good stepping-stone for next year when I have to write a thesis.  Sebastián and Viviana were helpful during this process.  Sebastián was always available to meet with me when I felt I had hit challenging points with my topic. 

Another major component of Pitzer in Ecuador is community service.  Viviana found over 12 different options of different organizations that worked with people facing huge inequalities in Ecuadorian society.  For the first two months of being in Quito, I worked with the Rotary Club of Quito.  The Rotary Club provided low-cost quality medical services for low-income residents.  They also had outreach programs for local communities to help promote health and education.  My job while working with them was to translate grant proposals from Spanish to English so they could send them out to donors in English speaking countries. 

For the last two and a half months, I worked with a powerful organization called CasaTrans.  CasaTrans is an advocacy organization for transgendered people.  I learned how CasaTrans sensitively enters the community and works with the people to identify and meet their needs.  I helped lobby the National Assembly for transgendered people’s basic rights to healthcare, education, and work.  I learned how delicate the political situation in Ecuador is and how hard it is to create change from outside the ruling party in a system that has little room for dissent.  With Casatrans, I also photographed a powerful demonstration that took place in the main plaza to protest the high rates of gendered violence towards women.  With other Pitzer students and Ecuadorians, I also participated in a soccer tournament to help raise money to fight violence against women.  These experiences were so empowering and I felt like I was really making a difference.

CasaTrans.
CasaTrans.

Some of my favorite memories were traveling around Ecuador with the other Pitzer students on my trip.  Ecuador is cheap and easy to travel around in.  While in Ecuador, I went to different beaches and surfed.  I also traveled south to a beautiful city called Cuenca that is smaller and calmer than Quito, but just as beautiful.  

Travel to Cuenca.
Travel to Cuenca.

My other favorite memory from my study abroad trip to Quito was celebrating thanksgiving with all the students from the Pitzer program and my host family.  Everyone made a dish special to their family and shared it.  We all ate around my host family’s dining room table while conversing, laughing, and getting to know one another better. 

Thanksgiving in Ecuador.
Thanksgiving in Ecuador.

In talking to the other students attending the Católica on different study abroad programs, I realized how amazing and thorough the Pitzer program was.  Many programs did not care about their students as much as Sebastián and Viviana cared about us.  Their programs also did not plan fun educational trips or provide support when we were feeling down.  Our host families were carefully chosen and the finances to pay our host families were carefully planned out so we did not have to pay them directly like in other study abroad programs. 

In my group everyone bonded with their host families, while in other programs many people had to switch host families because they were unhappy.  I felt well cared for by my host family throughout my stay.  Their kindness and genuine interest in sharing their life with me allowed me to greater immerse myself.  They made it clear to me that I could ask them for help anytime I needed it, and made an effort to take me on different trips so I could get to know Ecuador better. 

***

I am nervous to return home.  I am silent the whole ride to the airport.  We wind down through the valley.  The journey seems longer than when I arrived.  My little host brother tells me how much he will miss me.  We arrive at the airport and I see my friend Rachel with her host family.  Our families stick around until they see that we are all checked in.  As we all hug goodbye, Rachel and I can’t stop crying.  My family hugs me tightly one last time before leaving me to go through security for the last time on this 5-month long journey. 

There is still time to apply for Pitzer in Ecuador Fall 2014.  To get an application, you can contact the study abroad office at studyabroad@pitzer.edu.  

Also feel free to contact me personally with any questions about the program ljohnsto@students.pitzer.edu

Images Courtesy of Karen Kandamby, Molly Goldfarb, CasaTrans, Mary Nash and Lianna Johnstone.

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